This past Sunday’s readings never fail to make priests quake in their boots. Through the Prophet Malachi, and then directly in the Gospel, our Lord chides the priests of the Old Covenant for not keeping his ways, not giving glory to his name, and most of all for looking to their own status instead of the needs of God’s people. In the Gospel, from Matthew 23, Jesus’ admonition comes as a last ditch effort call to conversion, just before his arrest and Crucifixion. Since, under the new covenant we have not only a ministerial priesthood [of the ordained], but also a royal priesthood [of the lay-faithful], we all do well to listen to Jesus’ words.
As I’ve mused before, the priests of Jesus’ day probably didn’t wake up with villainous scowls on their faces, thinking from first light, “How can we be selfish today?” Nor do priests, nor do most lay people today in 21st-century DC. If we’re going to learn and grow we need to look a little deeper than that simplistic image. The religious leadership of Jesus’ time was deeply afraid: afraid of rebellion among their own people, afraid of Roman occupation, afraid of losing their own position or even their lives. Can’t we see similar issues among our people today? Among the priests, we do, we truly do ask the important questions, “How can I follow the heart of Jesus more faithfully today?” “How can I introduce others to that Sacred heart?” But it can’t be denied that other more terrestrial questions cloud our attention: “Will this Sunday’s collection pay the bills?” “Will the government make life easier or harder for the Church?” “Will the Chancery come down on me because of that homily I gave?” Etc. etc…. For the faithful too, exercising their royal-priesthood in the world, there are fears and anxieties that threaten to drown out the more important stuff: “What effect will office politics have on my job?” “Will I ever find Mr./Ms. Right?” “How am I supposed to pay my bills and save while living with downtown expenses?” Etc. Etc… Given that depression and anxiety are the two most commonly diagnosed psychological issues in America today, I don’t think I’m far off asserting that like the priests of old, we are afraid. Maybe that’s why Jesus, and more recently St. John Paul II’s most common phrase was, “Be not afraid!”
Indeed, fear generates in us an autonomic physiological response. Preparing us for fight or flight, the body secures its digestive system (hence you lose your appetite when fighting). Excess waste is shed (i.e. The scared child who wets himself). Muscles tense and adrenaline floods the brain shutting down higher functions like advanced planning. Our bodies do everything they can to prepare us for battle/self-defense. What you’ll notice is that none of these autonomic responses are disposed to generosity.
Theologically, that disposition toward self-preservation could be described as a symptom of original sin… part of concupisence. But that’s not the end of the story. Man was made, after all, “in the image and likeness of God,” and God is all generous. The Catechism reminds us of this right off the bat in paragraph #1: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to mak him share in his own blessed life.” Gratuitous self-gift is part of our hardwiring as human beings. Hence, human beings are theonly creatures on earth who can rationally choose to give their lives for the sake of another. That’s us at our best. That’s us at our most God-like. It’s also why St. Paul says all creation “awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.” (Rm. 8:19). If self-preservation is a result of sin, then self-gift is a sign of redemption and of hope.
Whether you’re an ordained priest, or a member of the lay-faithful offering up your own sacrifices each Sunday, I know it’s hard. Struggling against he gravity of self-concern is a huge deal and it hurts sometimes. It brought Jesus all the way to the Cross. But it’s worth it. Not just because of the good that is achieved… though that is a worthwhile end… but at an even deeper level, we strive to be givers because that is who we are meant to be. Being a person of self-gift lays aside the old man (Eph. 4:22) and puts on Christ (Gal. 3:27), thus revealing -to the hope and relieve of all creation- the children of God in our midst.